Taiga. A Film Review

Graham Shields (shields@illite.u-strasbg.fr)

August 20, 1998

Taiga, a photographic documentary of a journey through the northern parts of Mongolia, was premiered in February 1992 in Berlin, coming soon after Ottinger's previous success with the romantic fiction of Joan of Arc of Mongolia in 1989. Epic in scale (almost eight and a half hours), Taiga does not seek to rush as the viewer's perspective creeps snail-like from spellbinding landscape shots to authentic social scenes. In this respect, the film mirrors the slow, unhurried pace of mongolian life.

Taiga: A Film Review

The film is accompanied by a book (in german) which appeared in 1993 and can only be highly recommended: Taiga (Verlag Dirk Nischen GmbH & Co KG, Am Tempelhofer Berg 6, 1000 Berlin 61; ISBN 3-88940-078-7). A foreword by Walther Heissig and an epilogue by Erika Taube serve to set the scene and high praise is reserved for Ulrike Ottinger, who achieved several firsts during the course of the film.

The film begins with the typically mongolian scene of a person on horseback approaching us like a tiny smudge on the lens from the seemingly endless steppe. It takes several minutes for the man to arrive and, like a seasoned performer, he ignores the spying camera as he dismounts his pony and binds horse hair around a branch hoping that by his homage the day's hunting might go well. During these long, initial scenes, we, the onlookers, too stressed out by modern life, shuffle in our seats, our thoughts elsewhere. However, after only half-an-hour our minds and spirits are captivated by the beauty of the scenes and the attraction of simple pleasures. Ottinger knows how to enthrall her audience without gimmicks. Almost wordlessly, we learn about the characters of this real-life stage, where events unfold like the seasons with no 'vestige of a beginning and no prospect of an end'. Political events may have constantly changed the shape of things in Mongolia but this film concerns itself with matters that have remained unchanged for hundreds of years, the everyday lives of the nomads of the heavily forested and mountainous Taiga.

Taiga is a treat for laymen and researchers alike, with almost real-time enactments of libations, rituals, stupoforic shaman dances and incantations, real mongolian barbecues, life in a mongolian kindergarten, hunting expeditions, wrestling bouts and lengthy discussions with the locals, both young and old. Much attention is given to the shamanistic traditions. They clearly play a very important role in the lives of these people for we are not in the politically influenced regions or big towns but in the North, where the Darchad nomads and Tuvan people tend their livestock.

Although a small, and possibly superfluous part of the film shows wedding and music scenes in Ulaanbaatar, most is devoted to the Taiga regions close to Lake Hövsgöl near the border with Russia. This is where the Darchad minority know well the five noble animal races of Mongolia: yaks, camels, horses, sheep and goats, and where the tiny group of 'Soyon-Uriangchai' Tuvans rely on reindeer for all their needs. Ottinger, whose name can be translated favourably into both the Darchad mongolian dialect and the Tuvan language, as 'Starry sky' and 'Firegod', respectively, quickly gained the respect and trust of both groups and was soon able to film shaman ceremonies which have never before been filmed.

Long, and remarkably genuine shaman rituals lend the film poignancy and it is clear that the translations of songs and prayers in the film have been carried out with the utmost care and integrity, points that are made clear in the book of the film by both Walther Heissig and Erika Taube, renowned experts on the subject. These ceremonies and all the speaking in the film are written down in the book 'Taiga' and allow this long film to be remembered with enjoyable clarity. I first enjoyed this film in three long sessions in Zurich in 1993, and enjoy it all the more every time I read the book. The film contains priceless gems, but due to its length, it is unfortunately never likely to reach a mass audience.

18.08.98, Strasbourg, France